National PACs spend big in NM general election before primary

Ads likely to target the 2nd Congressional District, recently re-drawn with new boundaries that include Bernalillo County

By: - June 6, 2022 4:59 am

(Getty Images)

Before New Mexican voters have finished casting ballots in the state’s primary election, national political groups are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising for the general election.

One Republican political action committee has already purchased more than $1 million in airtime on Albuquerque television stations in support of a candidate not yet specified in documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission. Meanwhile, a Democratic PAC has committed $580,000 to ads for candidates in “various congressional districts,” according to FCC filings.

On the Republican side, the Congressional Leadership Fund started buying television ad time on all four of Albuquerque’s major broadcast networks. The group signed contracts at the end of May, securing ad spots that will run from Sept. 7 through at least Oct. 11, ahead of Election Day, Nov. 8.

The Congressional Leadership Fund is a Republican super PAC based in Washington, D.C. that typically puts money behind Republican candidates seeking seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The group has also committed to buying ads on El Paso, Texas, television stations. These stations reach viewers in southern New Mexico’s heavily contested 2nd Congressional District where incumbent U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell is running unopposed in the Republican primary.

Some of the forthcoming ads will likely be in support of Herrell, but just as likely, they could feature attacks against Herrell’s yet-to-be-decided opponent.

Herrell will face the winner of the Democratic primary between Gabe Vasquez and Darshan Patel. Vasquez currently serves as a Las Cruces city councilor, and Patel is a family medicine physician in Lovington.

Meanwhile, the Democratic super PAC House Majority Forward also inked deals late in May to purchase ads on Albuquerque-based television stations. So far, the group has poured more than a half-million dollars into recent ad buys, again for unspecified candidates. The ads are slated to run from Oct. 25 through Election Day.

House Majority Forward is affiliated with House Majority PAC, a super PAC based in Washington, D.C. whose stated goal is to “help win back the House Majority for Democrats,” according to the group’s website.

Democrats currently control the House by a 220 to 208 margin.

House Majority PAC has purchased airtime on El Paso stations as well, and given the stated goal of the group, its ads will likely support the Democratic winner of the 2nd Congressional District primary race, and possibly attack Herrell.

With all three New Mexico congressional districts on the ballot this November, it’s possible that a portion of ad spending from both Republicans and Democrats could go toward candidates in other races. But according to Michael Rocca, an associate professor with the University of New Mexico’s political science department, PACs tend to spend money in the most competitive races. Right now, that seems to be the 2nd District.

“These outside spending groups target, primarily, competitive elections,” Rocca said. “It doesn’t make any sense for a group to spend money in a race on behalf of an incumbent who’s incredibly safe.”

While Republicans know Herrell will be their candidate in the 2nd District, Rocca said it’s tougher for Democrats buying fall ads in the summer because, without knowing who the Democratic candidate is, it’s harder to judge the competitiveness in the race against Herrel.

Rocca said it’s likely some outside money will be put into the 3rd Congressional District race as well because of recent redistricting that could give Republicans a chance to flip the district.

The new congressional map, which was adopted late last year, splits Albuquerque into two districts and moves some of southeast New Mexico — considered a conservative stronghold —into congressional districts currently represented by Democrats.

While the redrawn map gives Democrats a better chance at winning back the 2nd District, Rocca said it comes at the expense of weakening the Democratic hold on the 3rd District.

“They essentially took Democratic voters from the 3rd Congressional District and put them in the 2nd Congressional District,” he said. “It’s a zero sum game. If you’re going to make one district more Democratic or more Republican, that requires you to do the converse of another district. You have to take those votes from somewhere.”

The 3rd Congressional District is served by incumbent U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández. She will face Republican Alexis Martinez Johnson in November. Both Leger Fernández and Martinez Johnson are running unopposed in the primary election.

In the 1st Congressional District, incumbent U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury will face the Republican nominee, either Michelle Garcia Holmes or Louie Sanchez.

While all three congressional districts are likely to receive outside money, Rocca said it’s unlikely that ads purchased with that money will sway the average voter, largely because partisanship continues to drive which candidates voters choose. However, when one side decides to put money into a race, the other side tends to follow.

“It’s a wash,” he said. “It’s one side counteracting the other side, and the whole thing kind of breaks out to where it probably would have been anyway.”

Though it might seem to some like wasted money, there is one major reason national groups continue to spend big in state elections: independent voters.

Rocca said most independents tend to lean one way, but between 8 and 10% are truly undecided and might be swayed by ads. This is what keeps outside money flowing into state politics.

“Maybe by seeing one additional ad … it strikes a chord with that voter. That’s what you’re shooting for,” Rocca said. “If you spend the money and you’re able to get one vote, that might make the difference in a tight election.”

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Ryan Lowery
Ryan Lowery

Ryan Lowery is an award-winning independent journalist based in Albuquerque. He covers politics and criminal justice and has reported on New Mexico for the Las Vegas Optic, Santa Fe Reporter, Los Angeles Times and others. Lowery was awarded the 2020 William S. Dixon First Amendment Freedom Award from the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, and the 2021 Sunshine Award from the New Mexico Press Association for his reporting that highlighted lack of transparency from multiple government agencies.